China's Social Credit System: A Case Study in Misinformation

Speaker: Junius Brown

How does China’s “Social Credit System” actually work, and why is there so much misinformation about it?

For the last few years, the internet has been flooded with chilling stories about China’s social credit system. Bloggers, YouTubers, and even seemingly reputable news sources portray a high-tech dystopia in which AI and facial-recognition cameras track citizens’ every move to create a numerical loyalty rating that brings life-changing rewards and punishments.

This talk argues that most of what we know about China’s social credit system is wrong: the product of a game of telephone which introduced new distortions at every step. The true story of social credit, while still concerning, is more mundane. By retracing the true story, we gain a window into the logic and limits of China’s political system: the challenges of regulating an economy that grew too fast; the tug of war between central and local governments; and the practical weaknesses of China’s seemingly all-powerful bureaucracy. Along the way, we also gain lessons about how misinformation spreads and what we can do to avoid falling for it.

Two versions of this talk are available: one that emphasizes lessons about China’s political system, and one that emphasizes lessons about misinformation. Both cover the same core material, but spend more time on the desired topic.

About the Speaker

Junius Brown is a PhD candidate in political science at UC Berkeley, where he studies Chinese local politics, particularly the way citizens interact with bureaucracy when filing petitions, proposals, and complaints. He grew up in Connecticut and completed his BA at Macalester College; along the way, he also spent a semester at Leiden University College in The Hague and two years at Cornell’s Sociology PhD program. His passion for teaching extends to many topics, including authoritarian politics, political economy, and international relations.

Suggested Audiences

Age: 7th - 12th grade and community college; note that middle school students may find the material challenging

Preparation:  There is no preparation necessary.

Courses: Journalism; World History, US History, Global Studies, Government; Chinese language class; any class where media literacy is discussed

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